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Better hospital food: Lee Memorial steps up use of locally grown produce

FORT MYERS - Lee Memorial Health System officials are walking the walk, putting fresh greens where their mouths are and promoting good nutrition by example.

The public hospital system has been ramping up its emphasis on fresh produce supplied by local growers in its meal service. It also is striving to offer more organic choices for patients and medical staff.

Buying locally means that $800,000 spent on produce, out of $10 million spent annually on food, has stayed in local business hands to help sustain the agriculture community, said Larry Altier, system director for food and nutrition services.

"Eighty-eight percent of our produce is local in the winter," he said. "In the last couple of years, we have made a conscious effort to increase that."

Lee Memorial is the largest public hospital system in the state with 1,423 inpatient beds and an array of outpatient programs. The hospital system has more than 10,000 employees.

Putting healthier foods on patient trays, in hospital cafeteria lines and throughout the system is part of the optimal nutrition approach.

"This is our guidepost when we take steps to improve patient care (and) staff support through nutrition management," Altier said. "The local efforts are tied to it, especially in terms of produce and are indicative of a national move toward keeping money in the local community."

Lee Memorial is taking part in a national campaign launched in 2012, called the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, in which health care systems commit to reduce their effects on the environment.

The initiative challenges hospitals to serve healthier foods, reduce energy waste, recycle more, use safer chemicals and buy more environmentally friendly products.

The effect of poor dietary choices is enormous to national spending on medical care; an estimated $147 billion is spent annually on obesity-related conditions and another $116 billion to treat diabetes, according to initiative data.

So far, Lee Memorial has committed only to the healthier food aspect of the program, according to the national initiative's website. Some of the food objectives include decreasing meat purchases by 20 percent within three years, increasing healthier beverages by 20 percent and increasing local sustainability with local food purchases by 20 percent.

No other Southwest Florida hospitals are taking part. There are nearly 1,000 hospitals nationwide now involved.

The NCH Healthcare System is focused on becoming a "blue zone" community, a different initiative launched in 2004 under which author Dan Beuttner teamed up with National Geographic to find where people lived the longest.

Dr. Allen Weiss, president and chief executive officer of NCH, sees the blue zone approach as more comprehensive and it has metrics for measuring outcomes after one year.

Physicians Regional Healthcare System administrators couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Lee Memorial produces 1.5 million meals annually for patients and outpatient programs. The number mushrooms to 4.7 million meals when cafeteria, catering and special events are added into the mix.

What's helped boost the commitment to buying local produce was the completion in 2012 of the 250,000-square-foot LeeSar complex in Fort Myers that provides for improved food handling.

The complex is for the regional health-care supply management company that Lee Memorial and Sarasota Memorial Health launched in 1998 for optimizing contracts on bulk purchases. The original LeeSar building was much smaller in Lehigh Acres.

The new complex on Winkler and Evans avenues in Fort Myers is where the "cook and chill" food service program, Culinary Solutions, operates meal preparation for Lee Memorial and is capable of handling more fresh produce. Lee Memorial relies on its Englewood-based produce broker, SunFresh Produce, to coordinate purchases from local farms.

Produce comes from Duda, a family-owned company headquartered in Oviedo in Central Florida, Lipman Produce in Immokalee and Troyer Brothers, a potato grower in Collier and Lee counties.

"From late November to the end of March, we can get just about anything I need with some exceptions," Altier said. "But in the summer, June to October, I must go out of state. That is when we go through our broker to help us, in Georgia and North Carolina and out west."

What's available locally in the winter are strawberries, lettuce, most citrus, peppers and onions.

Sometimes buying from local farmers requires more logistical coordination and prices may be higher, but supporting local business is the goal, Altier said.

What's in the developmental stages is working with a new aquaponics farm in Fort Myers, called Florida Urban Organics, which grows certified organic produce such as single variety lettuce and microgreens.

For example, Lee Memorial has purchased 600 pounds of lettuce that supplied three of its hospitals, said Whitney Fuller, marketing director for the organic farm on Metro Parkway at Kennesaw Street.

"We have sold them some lettuce and plan to work with them in the future, Fuller said.

That includes potentially purchasing organic tilapia, Altier said.

"In the health-care industry, there is a lot of focus on using local vendors, so I would like to say we are unique but there are others pursuing similar tracts," Altier said.

The food challenge portion of the Healthier Hospital Initiative is of particular interest among hospitals, including large systems, because it promotes the preventive nature of healthier foods against obesity, diabetes, heart disease and the like, said Sherry MacDonald, spokeswoman of Practice Greenhealth.

Practice Greenhealth, based in Virginia, is one of three nonprofit entities that is coordinating the initiative, along with 12 of the largest health-care systems that operate 490 hospitals and represents $20 billion in purchasing power.

The emphasis on healthier foods is on reducing sugary beverages, switching to grass-fed, antibiotic-free meat and local sourcing as much as possible, she said. That also helps support local economies.

"There are a lot of different ways that hospitals are finding to do that," she said.

The Florida Hospital Association now has 82 hospitals taking part, association spokeswoman Sarah McBrearty.

A summit to help hospitals learn about strategies to incorporate fresh and local produce, among other initiative goals, is July 25 at Moffit Cancer Center in Tampa.

"Our goal with the initiative is to bring awareness and education to hospitals, as well as provide them with the tools and best practices for improving our communities beyond direct health care services," McBrearty said.


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